Applying to College: 5 tips for International Students

Making the decision to study in the United States can be both terrifying and exhilarating — as is the case with most things worth doing. As an international student, attending an American university means throwing yourself into a completely new culture and challenging yourself to navigate a very unique educational system. It also means gaining valuable experiences that will change your life forever.

One of the biggest things to keep in mind when applying to American universities is that the admissions process is more complex than in many other countries. Grades and test scores are important, but American schools also emphasize character, values, and intellectual depth in addition to your academic record. This means admissions officers are concerned with who you are as a person. There are numerous components to your application, but be sure to highlight your extra curricular activities and leadership experiences, and craft an essay that conveys who you are at a deeper level. Familiarize yourself with the common application — many American schools use it, but even if they don’t, their applications will be similar in structure.

There are excellent resources available for students considering studying abroad, but here are a few tips you might not otherwise think of:

1. Think beyond the Ivies

It’s true that one of the biggest reasons many international students choose to study in America is that many of the world’s most prestigious universities are located there. Ivy League schools indeed offer quality instruction, but they’re not the only places in the US where a top-notch education can be found.

Refrain from getting caught in the prestige trap.

There are over 300 excellent universities in the US that will offer you a great education — and it’s entirely likely that the school that will serve you best isn’t in the Ivy League.

If you are considering graduate work, also keep in mind that the pedigree of your graduate program will typically supersede that of your undergraduate (bachelors) degree. Do your research, and challenge yourself to explore what kind of institutions will help you grow into the version of yourself you would most like to be.

2. Consider boarding school in the US

The number of international students studying in American boarding schools has skyrocketed in the last two decades. If your finances allow, attending boarding school in the US before applying to an American university can give you a chance to acclimate to the culture and experience what it’s like to live on campus in a dormitory. You’ll also study a similar curriculum to other US students, giving you an advantage for when you begin studying at university.

All American high schools provide guidance and college counseling.

These are tools you can take advantage of to both help you choose a school that fits your needs and ensure your application is the best it possibly can be.

If you’re interested in studying abroad during high school, The Association of Boarding Schools has a wealth of resources available for perspective applicants.

3. TOEFL, IELTS, and English Proficiency — Success Requires Creativity

One of my students recently told me he learned English by watching all 236 episodes of Friends. Other students regularly ask me what I’m reading (currently The Orphan Master’s Son) or what music I listen enjoy (Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and Ariana Grande). There are tons of ways to improve your English fluency outside of class; find one you enjoy and build it as a practice in your life.

If your high school isn’t taught in English, you will need to demonstrate your English proficiency by one of several examinations, either the TOEFL or the IELTS. Whichever you choose, give yourself time to prepare, and shoot for an excellent score. Some universities require a minimum score before you can be considered eligible. True English proficiency, however, is a lifelong practice — even for native speakers — and in order to be prepared for your college applications, you’ll need to regularly refine your ability to read, write, and listen.

4. Figure out your financing

One of the biggest hurdles to attending an American university can be the expense. Tuition at a private University can cost as much as $70,000 per year, and rates increase by a substantial percentage every year. Some schools will require you to submit a bank statement proving your ability to pay before considering your application .

Relatively few scholarship opportunities for international students exist, so it’s very important that you think through your options carefully.

If you do apply for financial aid, the two primary documents you may need to fill out are the CSS Profile and the ISFAA, both put out by the College Board, the same organization that administers the SAT. But keep in mind that some schools are not “need blind,” which means your request for aid may impact their decision to admit you.

If you need financial support, keep in mind that institutional scholarships are often awarded only to the very top students in a country or region.

Apply to schools where you are academically competitive, and you’ll be more likely to receive grants and scholarship.

Be creative and plan ahead for the best chance of success.

5. Visa applications take time —stay organized!

Once you’ve been accepted, take time to celebrate — but don’t forget about your visa. Applying for a student visa can be a confusing and time-consuming process — you’ll have to submit certain materials to the local American embassy after you have accepted an admissions offer. Your new school will send you an I-20 form, which is the application for an F-1 visa. Fill out and submit this form as quickly as possible to get the ball rolling. Processing a visa application can take several weeks, so be sure your application gets in as early as possible.

Whenever you are applying to something new and important, the first thing to do is spend some time being introspective, asking yourself:

“What do I need most for my long-term development?”

The answer may include your professional and career goals, of course, but it may also include more personal aspirations for how you want to spend the next four years. You will discover an enormous deal about yourself in college, and keeping an open mind while also setting concrete goals will help you make the most of your experience.

Luke Taylor is the Director of Spark Prep Admissions Consulting. He works with students around the world, supporting a holistic, values-based approach to the application process.

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